BOSTON — He was one of the most infamous criminals to ever be killed behind bars. And investigators narrowed in on suspects immediately after his shocking slaying in a West Virginia prison.
Yet three years later, no one has been charged in the beating death of murderous Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Questions such as why the well-known FBI informant was put in the troubled lockup’s general population alongside other New England gangsters — instead of more protective housing — remain unanswered.
Federal officials will say only that his death remains under investigation. Meanwhile, the lack of answers has only fueled rumors and spurred claims by Bulger’s family that the frail 89-year-old was “deliberately sent to his death” at the penitentiary nicknamed “Misery Mountain.”
“This was really a dereliction of duty,” said Joe Rojas, a union representative for the correctional staff at the Florida prison where Bulger was held before being transferred to USP Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. “There’s no way he should have been put in that institution.”
Bulger was found dead on Oct. 30, 2018, hours after arriving at Hazelton from the Coleman prison in Florida, where he was serving a life sentence for participating in 11 killings. The ruthless gangster who spent 16 years on the lam before being captured in 2011 was assaulted and died of blunt force injuries to the head, according to his death certificate.
Federal officials have never officially publicly identified any suspects and have said only that they are investigating his death as a homicide.
But shortly after the killing, a former federal investigator and a law enforcement official who insisted on anonymity because of the ongoing probe identified two Massachusetts organized crime figures as suspects: Fotios “Freddy” Geas and Paul J. DeCologero.
Geas, a Mafia hitman serving life behind bars for his role in the killing of a Genovese crime family boss and other violent crimes, has been in a restricted unit at the West Virginia prison since Bulger’s killing even though no charges have been filed, said his lawyer, Daniel Kelly.
Kelly says Geas hasn’t been provided regular reviews to see if he can be released from the unit but has petitioned to be returned to the general prison population, where he’d enjoy more freedoms, including the ability to call his family more often.
“He’s remaining positive and upbeat, but it’s a punitive measure,” Kelly said. “It’s a prison within a prison.”
DeCologero, meanwhile, was moved earlier this year to another high-security penitentiary in Virginia. A member of a Massachusetts gang led by his uncle, DeCologero was convicted in 2006 of racketeering and witness tampering for a number of crimes and is scheduled to be released in 2026.
Brian Kelly, one of the federal prosecutors in Bulger’s 2013 murder trial in Boston, said the delays may indicate prison officials don’t have any witnesses or video evidence to support charges.
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“In a prison environment they are going to have a tough time finding any witnesses to testify as to who did it,” said Kelly, now a defense attorney.
A spokesperson for the federal prosecutors’ office in West Virginia that’s investigating Bulger’s killing along with the FBI confirmed this month that the investigation remains open. The spokesperson, Stacy Bishop, refused to answer further questions, saying doing so could jeopardize the probe.
Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton — where workers had already been sounding the alarm about violence and understaffing — and placement within the general population despite his notoriety was widely criticized by observers after his killing.
A federal law enforcement official told the AP in 2018 that Bulger had been transferred to Hazelton because of disciplinary issues. Months before he was moved, Bulger threatened an assistant supervisor at Coleman, telling her “your day of reckoning is coming,” and received 30 days in disciplinary detention.
Some answers may come in a federal lawsuit filed in West Virginia by Bulger’s family. A trial has been set for February in the case, where prison system officials are accused of failing to protect Bulger from other inmates.
The lawsuit — filed on the two year anniversary of his killing against the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the former Hazelton warden and others — says prison system officials were well aware that Bulger had been labeled a “snitch” and that his life was at heightened risk behind bars. Bulger strongly denied ever being an informant.
“USP Hazelton by all accounts was not an appropriate placement of James Bulger and was, in fact, recognized as so inappropriate, the appearance is that he was deliberately sent to his death” by the defendants, the lawsuit says.
The family is seeking damages for Bulger’s physical and emotional pain and suffering, as well as for wrongful death. Lawyers representing the family declined to comment and calls to William Bulger, a former Massachusetts Senate president and president of the University of Massachusetts who administers his late brother’s estate, went unreturned this week.
Justice Department lawyers urged the judge in court documents filed this month to dismiss the claim, saying Bulger’s family “cannot allege that BOP skipped some mandatory, procedural directive” in transferring him to Hazelton or putting him in the general population.
Attorneys for the individual defendants said in another legal filing that the lawsuit “makes no mention of Bulger objecting to his transfer” or “ever requesting protective custody or expressing concern for his safety” upon arriving at Hazelton.
Justice Department lawyers pointed to a declaration from an executive assistant at Hazelton that says staff interviewed Bulger the night of his arrival and reviewed other records to determine if there were non-medical reasons for keeping Bulger out of the general population.
An intake screening form signed by Bulger that was filed in court says that he was asked such questions as: “Do you know of any reason that you should not be placed in general population?” and “have you assisted law enforcement agents in any way?” Both questions were marked “NO.”
- Alanna Durkin Richer and Philip Marcelo